Sunday, May 1, 2011

First rant against "the media"

Barack Obama made a great speech at the White House correspondents' dinner(WHCD, while Seth Meyers was a bit weaker, even if the delivery of "Donald Trump says he was running as a Republican, which is surprising since I just assume he was running as a joke" was quite great. It was a lot about Donald Trump, actually.

The first thing about the release of Obama's birth certificate, is to try to understand, as Seth Meyers said: Why now? Obama got a lot of pounding from his supporters because it looked as he caved in to some fringe-group controversy, even if the polls are actually showing that more than a third of Americans are not sure he's born in the US:
A New York Times survey taken two weeks ago found that nearly 25 percent of Americans believed Mr. Obama was born in another country; 45 percent of Republicans said they believed that.
Fom the detractors,  there were calls for the release of school transcripts. In an interview to Fox News, Sarah Palin  suggested that the President was trying to deflect attention from the real issues. My 1.5 cents view on this is that it's highly likely that there was a strategical calculation going on: the release of the birth certificate at a moment where the topic was dominated by Donald Trump makes the guy looks "good" and powerful, in the sense that he got results quite quickly after having asked the question. And a more popular Donald Trump is all benefit for the Democrats: the guy is simply not electable, and will make Republicans debate about topics they're not interested in in the primaries. There are a couple of counter-arguments to that:

  • The Republicans actually like to have Donald Trump there, to have some guy pounding on Obama, i.e. doing the dirty job for them.
  • The WHCD was a roast on Trump, so the story is a bit contradictory. I don't buy this one, because I don't think that the WHCD is followed by a lot of people.
In any case, there was a problem in the WHCD, as funny as it was. Obama and, at a lesser degree, Meyers, had a perfect platform to criticize some of the work the media has done in spreading irrelevant stories. As Obama mentioned in his closing, the treatment of journalists covering the revolutions in the middle east.
  The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that 852 journalists have been killed since 1992 when the committee began keeping records. Most recently, in Libya, an online journalist and an Al Jazeera reporter were killed covering fighting near Benghazi.
However, the stories those journalists are covering are sometimes shadowed by stories that are not informative at all. From the recent news, think about the birth certificate story and the entire Donald Trump saga, the royal wedding. It's not like nothing is going on, like, say, tornadoes or wars. The traditional CNN screen capture here. TV coverage of the royal wedding was higher in the US than in the UK. The Daily Show had a nice sequence on Wednesday showing all the main news networks calling the release of the long form birth certificate of Barack Obama as a "bombshell". Today, on Meet The Press, Axelrod mentioned the obsession of the media with the birth certificate story. We've seen a rise in stories criticizing the media this week, and I was quite happy to see Ezra Klein, the Justin Timberlake of politics, hitting on it on Wednesday

Either the media make something into a story or they don’t. Donald Trump’s birtherism was a story not because Donald Trump paid for advertisements or yelled really loud while standing at the top of a tall building. It became a story because the media chose to give Trump lots of airtime, and then his comments were endlessly repeated and dissected on other shows and in other outlets, which meant they got more airtime and attention. The media cannot pretend to be a passive player in all this. They are the central player. No media coverage, no story. And that’s why the question isn’t whether the media should play the role of gatekeeper, but how they will play the role of gatekeeper.(emphasis mine)

That's why the exchange between Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow was really interesting. Both of them have a strong view on the problems with the 24-hour news networks. I think in general, the debate is about the role of the media. If some uninformative stories come above informative stories, the only reason is that the networks/newspapers considered that it was going to provide bigger ratings. Note that it is not clear that talking about Middle East revolutions does not  interest people. For instance, CNN ratings went up thanks to their coverage of the Egyptian revolution. In any case, the question is whether the media should look for the stories people want to hear, or provide information where it is actually needed(say, is a war good or bad, is Syria good or bad, is China emprisoning artists good or bad, etc).
There is first a problem of defining what is the informative and uninformative news. I have been quite careful in the previous paragraphs not to make any judgment of "stupid information" versus "clever information". It's hard for me to say that one piece of information is more worthy of being reported than another one. However, one thing is clear. People make decisions at the polling booth. They are going to provide a vision on their opinion of foreign policy, of economic policy, of social policy. Now, the royal wedding is useless for that. The birth certificate story could be used for political decision(and that is far-fetched), but this is not what happened: the coverage was about how some people were questioning Obama's place of birth, which has no relevance for any political decision. Likewise, on the Donald Trump coverage, this might be important: the guy is a likely Republican candidate. However, the coverage is not on his ideas, but on his character. What appears to happen is that the "entertainment" media and the "information" media are overlapping. I am not sure that should be the case.
The second problem is, then, what is the role of the media. Should it respond to consumers' desires, and be passive, or should it be active in shaping consumers' desires? My feeling is that the "informative" part of the media has an incredible role, which is to solve the imperfect information problem between decision-makers and those who hold them accountable. The main problem is that this goal is, maybe, philosophically rewarding, but that might not provide the best ratings, and thus the most money.  Now, I think that this is a short-term problem: you need to build reputation before people trust your information and thus initially it is costly to shift from entertainment to information; and that this is a prisoners' dilemma problem: the best outcome for media networks is, probably, to be informative, but unless there is cooperation, there will be the short-run profitable deviation to cover the royal wedding.

This is my first rant about the media, and as you see, I consider it a HUGE problem, but my thoughts are quite random on it. I feel the media is an incredibly important actor, and I don't think most of the news outlets are doing their job. And this is all the more frustrating when you see the incredible coverage done by some journalists on the revolutions in the Middle East, the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, or all the investigative books on the financial crisis. It's not like being informative is not doable, so there's a deliberate choice in not being informative. Don't get me wrong, that might be for "good" reasons(you need money to survive), but it is clear that there is a problem here and that some change is desirable. Now, for what change, well... Yes, that was an uninformative post. Sorry!

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